Opinion

Netanyahu and the unraveling of the British Jewish consensus

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The night before the election there was this exchange with Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interviewer: “If you are prime minister, a Palestinian state will not be established?” Netanyahu:  “Indeed”.

One word and the British Jewish consensus was blown to pieces.

Three days later, after winning a comprehensive victory for his Likud party and a fourth term as prime minister, Netanyahu had this apparent clarification for American television viewers:

“I don’t want a one-state solution. I want a sustainable, peaceful two-state solution, but for that circumstances have to change.”

In Britain, if you are a pro-Israel lobby group like We Believe in Israel, or BICOM or the Zionist Federation you have a tricky time ahead. If you are leading our religious or communal bodies from the United Synagogue to Liberal Judaism and of course the Board of Deputies, then you are now in a very serious fix.

Here’s why.

Bibi is back and this time he’s telling the truth.

And don’t be fooled by any apparent discrepancy between the two interviews.

When Bibi says “circumstances must change” he is in the realm of messianic times, that distant horizon when the moon and stars are aligned and all the Middle East is at glorious peace with itself. What Bibi means is that it ain’t gonna happen on his watch. It’s all of a piece with the stumbling blocks he put in front of John Kerry for a year but now Bibi is being honest about it.

Over the last few years it has been possible (just about) for Jewish communal leaders around the world, including Britain, to maintain the illusion that the Israeli government wanted to see peace and reconciliation with the Palestinian people.

Broadly speaking, this would be achieved through a two-state solution. Two states for two peoples, side by side.

This is what the British government wanted, what the rest of the EU wanted, what the United States wanted, what the United Nations wanted and what most Palestinians wanted. It’s also the position supported overwhelmingly by British Jews.

That consensus has allowed the Board of Deputies to develop a policy on Israel that they can comfortably ask every parliamentary candidate standing in Britain’s General Election in May to sign up to, so maintaining a broad cross party agreement on the issue.

The pro-Israel lobby groups in Britain have maintained the same two-state line. It makes everyone sound reasonable and fair and progressive and allows comfortable alignment with the Israeli government, all of the Westminster political parties and the vast majority of British Jews.

In reality things are not quite so straight forward.

When you scratch the surface of all this unanimity you quickly discover that there are vastly different ideas about what these two states should look like. Where would the capital of a Palestinian state be? What should happen to the Jewish Settlements and the exclusive resources that service them on the West Bank? How much control would a Palestinian state have over its own borders, airspace and internal security?

But to enable the consensus to hold together our communal and religious leaders (and the lobby leadership too) have deliberately avoided taking a clear public position on issues like the annexation of East Jerusalem, the expansion of the Settlements and the rights of Palestinian refugees. Instead of framing these issues as moral questions they have opted for tribalism. They have for decades abdicated ethical responsibility by saying that the brutal reality of a 50-year occupation is just detail to be negotiated by an Israeli government.

It’s a strategy that has created the appearance of community cohesion even if it lacks moral backbone and disregards Jewish ethical tradition.

But with Netanyahu’s new found honesty over the two-state solution the consensus in Britain is about to unravel. David Cameron might be happy to congratulate Netanyahu on his victory and overlook the racist tone of his campaign but Likud’s return to power has just sparked a huge crisis in British Jewry.

The Board of Deputies’ election manifesto is now at odds with what will soon be the official Israeli policy – no to two-states, or at best, ‘sometime never’. The same crisis goes for the current positions held by our main religious denominations and even the British pro-Israel lobby groups.

The question they must all face is whether to acknowledge the difference and adopt a critical stand against the Israeli government or realign with Bibi and open divisions with the British government, the opposition parties and indeed most British Jews.

So expect to see turmoil in the ranks of the Jewish establishment, some soul searching among the rank and file and a clear fracturing of publicly voiced Jewish opinions on Israel. And about time too.

However, if you have not locked yourself into uncritical support for Israel and you have preferred to follow a Jewish tradition that has informed universal human rights and international law, then Netanyahu leaves everything looking very much clearer.

The next few years will be easy to navigate.

Without considerable external pressure, both political and economic, Israel will not stop Settlement expansion, will not dismantle the separation wall, will not give up an inch of the Occupied Territories, will not end the siege of Gaza. It certainly will not sit down and negotiate a peace deal that looks remotely just to Palestinian eyes. Why should it while the rest of the world allows its behaviour to continue without cost or consequence? And God help the children of Gaza if Hamas dares to fire any more home-made rockets in the general direction of the most powerful army in the region.

But with Netanyahu finally putting the two-state solution six feet under, that necessary pressure is on the way.

It will come from European governments and it will come from grass roots activists. The pressure will undoubtedly include boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And those activists will increasingly include Jews. Not self-hating Jews but profoundly disillusioned Jews. It will come from Jews looking for a new kind of Jewish leadership and hoping to protect their democratic and ethical ideals and rescue what’s left of their Jewish heritage.

Mr. Netanyahu, thanks for showing us the way forward.

This piece first appeared on Cohen’s site, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.

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“But with Netanyahu finally putting the two-state solution six feet under, that necessary pressure is on the way. It will come from European governments and it will come from grass roots activists. The pressure will undoubtedly include boycotts, divestment and sanctions. And those activists will increasingly include Jews.” From your ‘pen’ into action, I hope! Thank you, Robert. (Don’t you think it’s time to dispose of the term “self-hating Jews” that you referred to in… Read more »

“From your ‘pen’ into action, I hope! Thank you, Robert” Ditto that Just! I also read the guardian article earlier today about the possibility of sanctions by the eu. Let’s hope that something positive for the Palestinians finally comes out of all of this. Unfortunately I suspect that Cameron et al over here have already accepted Netanyahus backtrack and will just try and bury it. If we don’t see a significant change in the USA… Read more »

thank you very much robert cohen. i’m crossing my fingers you’re right. the tipping point will come someday and there’s no time like the present.

Makes me wonder if this was a calculated move by Netanyahu to see if th world would turn. And if they don’t then it basically gives them free reign to expand settlements, annex more land, displace more Palestinians etc etc etc. If the world doesn’t bat at eye at his honest comment that any knowledgable observer would have known to be true, then he can go a head with his plan of a greater Israel.… Read more »

RE: “But with Netanyahu finally putting the two-state solution six feet under, that necessary pressure is on the way.” ~ Robert Cohen

MY COMMENT: I hope Mr. Cohen is correct, but I fear that a glorious “resurrection” will come to the rescue (possibly a Transfiguration as well)! The stone/boulder is already being loosened from the entrance to the tomb.